Phenomenal Woman: Berta Cáceres

Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores was a renowned environmental activist and advocate for the protection of indigenous peoples’ land in Honduras. An outspoken supporter for the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community, she is best known for the successful 10-year campaign she organized against the Agua Zarca Dam.

Born into the Lenca people in La Esperanza, Honduras, Cáceres grew up in the 1970s amid great civil unrest and violence in Central America. Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores Lopez, was a midwife and social activist who sheltered and cared for refugees from El Salvador, teaching her children the value of fighting for the disenfranchised. Austra Flores later entered public service and was elected mayor of their hometown of La Esperanza, a position in which she served two terms. She went on to serve as a congresswoman and as a governor of the Department of Intibucá.

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After attending local schools, Berta Cáceres studied education at a university and graduated with a teaching qualification. She was involved in political and social activism even as a student. In 1993, at the age of 22, she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to address the growing threats posed to Lenca communities by illegal logging. Through COPINH, Cáceres led the fight for Lenca peoples’ territorial rights and improved livelihoods.

Since the 2009 military coup carried out by graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, there was an explosive growth in environmentally destructive projects that would displace indigenous communities. The government approved hundreds of dam projects around the country, privatizing rivers, land, and uprooting communities. One of these was the Agua Zarca Dam.

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In addition to the grave environmental repercussions, the dam posed, its construction violated international laws protecting indigenous peoples, denying the Lenca people’s access to water and self-sustainability. In 2013, Cáceres began leading COPINH and the local community in a prolonged protest at the dam’s construction site to prevent the companies from accessing the land. Security personnel regularly removed protesters from the site, but they persisted in their peaceful demonstrations. On 15 July 2013, the Honduran military opened fire on the protesters, killing one member of COPINH and injuring three others. Under Cáceres’s leadership, the protestors continued amid numerous violent and legal attacks launched upon them by the dam’s builder, Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA).

On 20 February 2016, more than 100 protesters were detained by DESA security while protesting, and threats against their organization began to increase.

In 2013, Cáceres told Al Jazeera: “The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world, but I have never once considered giving up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate. I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable… When they want to kill me, they will do it.”

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On the night of 2 March 2016, armed intruders entered Cáceres’s home and shot her dead. She was killed just two days before her 45th birthday. Following multiple delays, seven men were convicted for her murder in December 2019.

A year before she was killed, Cáceres’ tireless efforts were commemorated with a Goldman Environmental Prize. In her lifetime, she was also a respected political analyst, women’s rights defender and anti-capitalist campaigner.

COPINH continues to fight for the environment and indigenous peoples’ rights in Honduras, albeit with caution. Repression of social movements and targeted assassinations was and remains rampant in Honduras.

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